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Hilton Head production of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ delivers from start to finish

The cast of ”Murder On the Orient Express,” which plays at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina through Oct. 27.
The cast of ”Murder On the Orient Express,” which plays at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina through Oct. 27. Submitted

First, let me tell you that you will completely enjoy from beginning to end the outstanding and very well-known play ”Murder On the Orient Express,” now playing at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina on Hilton Head Island.

It is entertaining, compelling, and diverting. It is partly a murder mystery and partly a comedy of manners ... actually, a light, sophisticated comedy with characters drawn from polite society.

With that said, I’d like to characterize our production as a kind of British-drawing-room comedy with substance and a serious edge — a well-made play with a societal spin.

Written by Agatha Christie, with the adaptation by Ken Ludwig, this remarkable play set in a first-class rail car on the opulent Orient Express will involve you, intrigue you, worry you, confuse you, make you laugh out loud, cause you to do a reevaluation of your values .... and through it all, hold you in thrall start to finish.

Christie and Ludwig offer an unforgiving look at the characters, who are socially over the top. But, happily for all of us, they don’t miss a beat at the opportunity to send off the most brilliant one-liners. Solidly British and dripping with sarcasm and sardonic good humor, the fast-paced zingers delighted me and the entire audience through the evening.

Next, I’ll tell you that everyone, in a triumph of understatement, through the course of the two-act event, except, perhaps, the star of our show, the famous Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective, is, shall we say, not always careful with the truth. Our director Claudia Zahn from New York, actually said to me at intermission, and with great good humor, that the characters were liars, all liars ... in a good way!

Also I will need to mention here, that in the customary opening-night welcome by arts center president and CEO Kathi Bateson, after thanking the many supporters of the arts center, asked politely ... but forcefully ... ”Please don’t give the ending away.”

And we won’t.

The flow of the show

The stage is set, so to speak, as a number of our cast of characters meet first in the dining room in Istanbul. By way of a projection at the rear of the setting, there is a reference to a terrible incident involving the kidnapping and murder of a little girl. Pay close attention during those early moments.

By the way, the same stage serves all evening ... the dining room , a railroad car, several first-class compartments, a murder scene, and more. The stage, lighting, projection and sound managers impressively set off the dramatic action.

As the whistle blows and the train leaves the station, we see through an enormous window at the rear of the set the views to outdoors, the changing of altitudes, the color of leaves, flashes of falling snow, until finally, a massive snowdrift stops the train completely. Everything will change.

As evening falls, the first-class travelers winnow away from their loosely defined circle of activity, toward their designated compartments. The Princess Dragamiroff (Janice Dardiris) is accompanied to her compartment with Mary Debenham (Bevin Bell-Hall); Monsieur Bouc, the manager (Brad DePlanche,) has given up his compartment to the delightfully prissy, prim and precise Poirot (Warren Kelley). Samuel Ratchett, the obnoxious, classless business tycoon (Jack Lafferty) has his own room and Ratchett’s secretary, Hector McQueen (Austin Lucas) has another first-class space.

Several scenes with Samuel Ratchett and the many-times married, and former actor, Helen Hubbard (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse) are so funny. Ratchett’s disgust for her is only exceeded by her delight in causing him to come very close to losing all sensibility. Those moments are truly top drawer.

The beautiful and brilliant Countess Andreny (Amber Bonnaso), who Poirot finds particularly appealing, shares her arrangements with the ultra religious, socially unskilled and very funny Greta Ohlsson (Kayla Ryann Walsh). Head waiter Michel (Marc Carver) sees to the needs of the passengers, while Colonel Abuthnot (Jack Lafferty) is keeping a close eye on a number of things.

I’ve carefully listed the first-class passengers, and their support, because as soon as there is sunlight, it will be found that one in their midst is dead. The business tycoon, Mr. Ratchett, who spent such a wobbly night speaking rudely to Mrs. Hubbard, can no longer be counted among the living.

Outside, the snow continues to fall and snowbanks challenge the progress of the train. Efforts to reach help are sent off by Monsieur Bouc, who was finally successful in completing his call.

“We are completely stopped by the snow storm,” he shouts. “We are almost out of food and drinks, there is no power at all, and above all of that, there is a dead man rotting in my closet.” This delivered with just the right amount of irony.

There is a positive resolution to the events of those several days ... all in the style of the best murder mysteries and British drawing room comedies!

If you go

What: “Murder on the Orient Express.”

When: Through Oct. 27; various show times.

Where: Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, 14 Shelter Cove Lane, Hilton Head Island.

Information: 843-842-ARTS; info@artshhi.com; artshhi.com.

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